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Bad behavior nothing new

It's been going on for a long time in sports

By Randy Myers

Knight Ridder Newspapers

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- Overheated fans douse athletes with beer, sometimes urine.

A player trips a dancing sausage who slams to the ground.

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Monday, a Texas Ranger flings a plastic chair into the stands, breaking a fan's nose.

Bad behavior in grandstands and on playing fields would seem to suggest an erosion of civility in sports and American society.

Some experts suggest that's what's really going on; others say that might be reading too much into what happened Monday night at the Oakland Coliseum.

Sports sociologists arrive at various big-picture observations from the unruly incident. They agree what happened is inexcusable, but say unsportsmanlike conduct is hardly uncommon.

"This is something that has been going on for years," said Harry Edwards, a former UC-Berkeley sports sociologist.

Consider:

In 1912, baseball legend Ty Cobb beat up a heckler.

In 1922, Babe Ruth tossed dirt in an umpire's eye then ran after a heckler.

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But today's actions show harsher hostility and a lack of respect for others, a trend that disturbs a former sports sociologist and author. Retired Colorado State University professor Stan Eitzen sees these attitudes reflected on roadways and played out in the 'burbs.

He links the violent outbursts to a disconnected society, where families infrequently gather for dinner, neighborhoods gate themselves off from communities and neighbors remain strangers.

"There are just a number of things that are happening that make us less connected," he said. "We're so indulgent of our own wishes and wants."

Sporting events build on team loyalty, encouraging fans to cheer and make a heck of a lot of noise. But obnoxious and profane behavior doesn't belong, he said.

"To hurl insults, to throw things, that's over the line."

Oakland A's fan Stephen Ma of Alameda, Calif., agrees that hyped-up fans can step over the line. He witnessed it Monday night in the stands when A's fans reacted in anger after the chair-tossing incident.

"I was thinking to myself some of these guys shouldn't be using these four-letter words because there are kids around."

Reasonable heckling, the kind that avoids personal insults, is not only permissible but appropriate, said a UC-Berkeley professor of sports and law.

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"Fans should be given a certain amount of leeway," said Steve Sugarman. But throwing objects at players or fans should never be tolerated.

A failing society? He dismisses the notion.

"This is a long-standing familiar problem that men, when pressed, sometimes fight . . . It's just an unfortunate incident that's too bad for baseball and too bad for the fans and the rest of the players."

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